In my thoughts

Posted By | March 10, 2011 12:00 am

Every now and then we get a reminder, or in this case reminders, that no matter what your sport of preference, it’s still just a game.
We as sports fans get really excited over wins and really sad over losses and rightly so. I think everyone knows how I feel about sports and the teams I follow. Not just teams, but athletes in my fantasy teams. But in the end, we must keep it all in perspective. It’s a game. Even though some are blessed to get to play a game or coach a game for a living, it’s still small in the overall scheme of things.
This past week, the sports world got a couple of reminders of that that have been on my mind constantly. The MTSU women’s team and the Fennville High School boys’ team have been in my thoughts constantly.
Both teams lost teammates as tournament time rolled around. Just in case you missed out on the tragedies, here it is.
Tina Stewart, a junior member of the MTSU women’s basketball team, was stabbed to death last week in her apartment just hours after she had the best practice of her career and less than two days before the team was to depart Murfreesboro for the Sun Belt Conference tournament where a berth in the NCAA tournament was on the line. The events surrounding the tragedy are still being investigated. I won’t get into the details that I have been following. I just know that my heart breaks not only for her actual family, but her extended family, which were her teammates.
Those girls went from the most important thing in their life at that moment being winning the tournament and getting into the NCAA tournament to dealing with the loss of a member of their family. Being a part of a team is a special thing no matter at what level. Even though I never played college sports, I have had enough close friends play that I do know that college teammates do become even more like family. They travel all over the country together and are away from their real families so they become like family. Many don’t get to go home for holidays so those teammates fill the void that is there.
I think the reason this whole thing has bothered me so much is because we have a connection to the MTSU team. It wasn’t some group of people that I had just heard of, it affected people I knew. Molly McFadden is a member of that MTSU team. In fact, she and Stewart were the lone two juniors on that team.
The MTSU women chose to go on and play in the tournament. Just as the Fennville, Michigan high school boys’ basketball team did.
The Fennville players, coaches and fans witnessed their star player dying on the court just minutes after scoring the game-winning basket in overtime of their final regular season game. The win capped off an undefeated regular season. As the team celebrated Wes Leonard collapsed to the floor and was later pronounced dead from cardiac arrest due to an enlarged heart.
Leonard was a strong athlete who was unaware of his heart condition. The junior was not only the best player on his basketball team but was also the quarterback of the football team, who threw seven touchdown passes in a conference championship game.
I cannot imagine how traumatized that group of young men must have been to have seen that happen on the court in front of them. The stories I have read about this since it happened has left me with tears in my eyes for these young men.
They, like the MTSU women, voted and decided to play. They won their game after starting the contest with only four players on the court in remembrance of their fallen teammate.
The team had two special visitors prior to their game. One was Michigan State coach, Tom Izzo. The other was Bo Kimble. If anyone knows that those young men are going through, it’s Bo Kimble.
Kimble was best friends with Hank Gathers. The two played high school basketball together and went on to be teammates at Loyola Marymount. They actually both went to USC first and then transferred to LMU.
Gathers was a beast on the basketball court. His junior year at LMU, he led the nation in scoring (32.7 ppg) and rebounding (13.7 rpg). (Those aren’t typos either.) He was only the second person to ever do that. In March of 1990 during his senior season, Gathers collapsed and died on the court during a game against the University of Portland.
LMU was an exciting team to watch. They could put points on the board. Kimble led the nation in scoring their senior year averaging 35 points per game.
The team went on to the NCAA tournament after Gathers’ death. I instantly became a Loyola Marymount fan. Kimble shot the first free throw of each game with his left hand in memory of his best friend. He made all three free throws he shot that way during that tournament and continued that into his professional career.
Kimble drove from Philadelphia to Michigan to speak to the Fennville team prior to their game.
The following day after winning their tournament game, the Fennville team and the community gathered for the funeral of Leonard. They will go on and try to win their second state tournament game later this week.
I actually saw on the Internet where someone was criticizing the MTSU women for choosing to play despite the death of their teammate. I can’t imagine that anyone could even begin to try and decide what either of these groups of young people should be feeling. Everyone handles things like this in their own way and if that is what gives them some type of solace, then so be it.
The outcome of those games was the least important thing. It was about going on and finding a way to grieve. The fact that they played their games did not take away from how they felt about their teammates. In my mind, it was the right thing for each of those teams to do because they decided it as a team.
Even though it is just a game, sports are an escape for most of us. That’s what those teams were able to do for a while.
My prayers go out to each one of these teams and the families of the ones who died. I can’t imagine what they are all going through.
I am going to close my column with a quote from one of the espn.com articles I read about Wes Leonard.
“That’s why in some ways there is a beauty in how Wes passed away. There he was, a star athlete, surrounded by the teammates he loved, being cheered by the entire town and hitting the game-winning shot to save a perfect season. That is how he spent his last few moments on Earth: doing what he loved and celebrating a great achievement. Not many people of any age get to do that. If there’s any sense of peace that can be taken from all of this, it’s in that thought.”

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